Special to realvail.com
Horseplay in the high country
March 4, 2008 —
Imagine sticking your head out the car window while driving down the road at 40 mph and grabbing a set of keys dangling off the bottom of a stop sign, then turning quickly left to avoid oncoming traffic, swerving back right go off a jump for 50 feet, landing (hopefully), then swerving back right and grabbing another set of keys off another stop sign.
OK, so now if youíre skier, imagine doing this behind a powerful quarter horse while on your skis and holding onto a rope with your left hand and a wand with your right hand as your spear two sets of three rings dangling from metal posts. This is skijoring - one of the craziest things Iíve ever done.
Iím not sure what to focus on here. In theory it seems easy. But once you see one of these events, or better yet sign up for one, you have no idea how hard it really is. The size of the pro/open jumps is huge, the horses are powerful, and the speed is unreal.
I pitched the idea of doing a skijoring segment to Warren Miller Entertainment sometime back. This year they bit on it, we filmed at the annual skijoring competition in nearby Leadville March 1-2, and Iíll forever have the scars to prove we didnít fake any of it.
I knew this was going to be a good story, but I did realize exactly how radical the sport is. Right from the start there is so much that takes place. Getting through the course is just a tenth of the battle.
At the start a wrangler hands you a rope with a loop on it. On the other end is a horse and rider. The horse looks like it is ready to explode as the rider does everything she or he can to keep it from not taking off or bucking them off.
The moment you have the rope looped around your hand properly, with no slack, the rider lets the horse go and, bang, you are flying down the course. The first obstacle, you hit the start timer, cut left to a jump that is 6 feet high with a flat landing. Cutting right and going really fast now, try to line up with three small rings dangling for three bars.
In your right hand is a metal wand that you will use to spear all of them. Once on your arm, cut back left around a gate, then right again. Now you are really flying, and here comes the big jump. Ten feet high to another flat landing.
The entire time the horse is running as fast as it can down the center of the track while the rope is flying all over behind it but connected you, so learning how to manage that rope is important. Trying to keep it as tight a possible is key, but knowing when to let slack out is also key.
Then you bang off the second huge jump, fly back to the left across the horse path and land in time to make a gate going back right, holding the wand up again and trying to snag three more rings before cutting back left again for the last jump that will shoot you back right to the finish timer.
Once through the finish, it is hard to really get an idea of what just happened. Between the power of the horse, the debris flying off the ground from the pounding horse hooves, the rings, the jumps, the turns and holding onto the rope, it is a blur that flashes back at you later in your dreams.
Then there is the horse and the rider. My rider was 16-year-old champion Kirstie Eckert and one of her horses, Hollywood. Both of them had the experience and composure of true veterans compared to their rookie skier - that being me, dangling on the rope behind them. Thank you for the pull, you two!
I do not believe I have been involved with a sport where there are so many elements coming at you so fast, and most of them you have no control over. And the margin of error is so small. I had to cowboy up! Or at least give it my best shot. I just hope that we are able to bring a quarter of the feeling to the big screen next fall in the annual Warren Miller movie.
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